Welcome to the official website of philosopher of religion Daniel McCoy, the author of The Language of Meaning: Why Science Cannot Replace Religion.
Spirituality – the attempt to experience the numinous – has been one of the hallmarks of our species for tens of thousands of years if not longer. From the depths of the last Ice Age up to and including the present day, this spiritual impulse has inspired us to create countless different religions – frameworks of beliefs and practices through which we put ourselves in the presence of that awe-inspiring, otherworldly force. Since religion has given us a mysterious, blissful gift that nothing else in this world is capable of providing, it has been the greatest source of meaning in our lives for as long as it’s existed.
Today, however, that gift has largely been snatched away from us. For most of us, religion no longer occupies the pivotal role in our lives that it had in our ancestors’ lives. The remaining sources of meaning in our lives – relationships, career success, morality, politics, and so forth – are all earthly ones, and, delightful though they may be at times, they can never replace the access to the infinite and the eternal that we’ve lost. As a result, our lives have come to feel unnervingly hollow and senseless. Even though we’ve largely left religious belief behind, the religious impulse is still with us now as much as ever.
While several related historical developments are responsible for this disaster, one of the biggest – quite possibly the biggest – is that religion has come to be seen as something that can’t withstand serious intellectual scrutiny, which has made it all but impossible for most of us to think that we can be intellectually honest and religious at the same time. After all, as materialists and atheists argue, hasn’t modern science resoundingly debunked some of the most central claims upon which religious belief once rested?
I contend not only that it has not, but that it usually cannot, because science and religion are utterly incommensurable endeavors with utterly incommensurable aims and utterly incommensurable methods.
Most people who today defend religion against a purely materialist worldview, it must be admitted, take the laughable stance that they can somehow prove that their particular religion is factually true. (Here, of course, I have in mind “creationists” and the like.) By framing their arguments in such a way, they show that they share the materialists’ confusion about the nature of religion.
The central aim of my work is to show what the nature of religion really is, and how well-supported religious claims to truth often turn out to be when considered in that better-fitting light. To put it extremely briefly: we need to expand our definition of “truth” without muddying it. If truth is that which is unavoidably present, then truth can’t be reduced to only facts, because there’s much more to the world as we experience it than just facts. A purely factual world is an abstraction that’s at least one step removed from reality. Just as there is an objective, factual aspect of the world, the world also has a subjective, existential aspect for us whose existence we can’t deny any more than we can deny the existence of objective facts. So just as there is an objective, factual modality of truth, there must also be a subjective, existential modality of truth that addresses claims about those non-factual features of experience, which broadly fall under the category of meaning. Since facts don’t depend on any meaning to be what they are, and meaning doesn’t depend on any facts to be what it is, science – the preeminent means of evaluating claims to factual truth – doesn’t have much of anything to say about meaning. That’s where religion comes in; just like we need science to properly understand fact, we need religion to properly understand meaning.
We need to move past the shallow literalism of the view that religious doctrines are necessarily claims to factual, objective truth – and we also need to move past the petulant dismissiveness of the view that religion is a childish error that has nothing to offer us today.
My book The Language of Meaning gives a systematic, definitive articulation of the heart of my work. This site is a place where I can introduce that work and apply its framework to more specific topics. I also intend to use this site to explore concrete ways to deepen one’s spirituality – ways that I hope will be applicable to more or less anyone who wants to deepen his or her spirituality, regardless of which religion, if any, he or she happens to adhere to.
I’m a writer, philosopher, mystic, and religious inhumanist. Right now, I’m primarily known as the creator of the website Norse Mythology for Smart People and the author of the book The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. For that project, I wear the hat of an independent scholar of the pre-Christian religion of the Vikings and other Germanic peoples.
The project that I present here on this website and in my new book, The Language of Meaning, however, is of a very different nature. Here, I write from direct experience and reflection first and foremost, and from book knowledge only secondarily. While I greatly enjoy researching and writing about particular historical religions, that work is something that I have to go out of my way to do, whereas writing philosophy is something that I can’t not do even if I try. My natural disposition is that of a philosopher rather than a scholar.
I have a BA degree that I’ve never used for anything – not even my websites or books. I’m almost entirely self-taught in everything that I do. Even when I was in college, I learned much more on my own than I did from classes – and the classes I got the most out of were formal independent studies. Schools are useful for social inculcation and sometimes career preparation, but they do more to hinder an actual education than to help it. (The truly great thinkers and scholars who comprise a small minority of professors, a few of whom I’ve had the privilege of working with, are exceptions to this rule.)
I have my own private religion that’s come to me little by little over the course of my life. On some level, you could say that I “created” it, but it would probably be truer to life to say that I discovered it, that it was given to me. (All inspired creative work has that sense about it to some degree, of course, but that sense is greatly intensified in this case.) No one else but me is a “member” of this religion. I used to call myself an “unaffiliated theist,” because I’m not an adherent of any religion that anyone else would recognize, but I’ve since come to view that description as sub-par at best. It sounds too wishy-washy, when I actually occupy a very definite position in the religious landscape. Directly describing my religion to other people feels like exposing a night-blooming flower to glaring midday sunlight, so I make a point to keep it to myself. There’s no need to know anything about it to understand my public work, anyway.
I recount the most decisive event of my life thus far in The Spiritual Experience that Changed My Life.
Some of my favorite books are Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals, and R. D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience.